Iranian backed-militias played a key role on the ground as Russian
jets intensified what rebels call a scorched earth policy that has
allowed the military back into the strategic northern area for the
first time in more than two years.
"Our whole existence is now threatened, not just losing more
ground," said Abdul Rahim al-Najdawi from Liwa al-Tawheed, an
"They are advancing and we are pulling back because in the face of
such heavy aerial bombing we must minimize our losses."
The Syrian military and its allies were almost five km (3 miles)
from the rebel-held town of Tal Rafaat, which has brought them to
around 25 km (16 miles) from the Turkish border, the rebels, a
residents and a conflict monitor said.
The assault around the city of Aleppo in northern Syria has prompted
tens of thousands to flee toward Turkey, which is already sheltering
more than 2.5 million Syrians, the world's largest refugee
In the last two days escalating Russian bombardment of towns north
west of Aleppo, Anadan and Haritan, brought several thousand more,
according to a resident in the town of Azaz.
Rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo are still home to 350,000
people, and aid workers have said they could soon fall to the
government. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted at the
weekend as saying Turkey was under threat.
Damascus says it wants to take back full control of Aleppo, Syria's
largest city before the civil war erupted five years ago. It would
be a huge strategic prize for Assad's government in a conflict that
has killed at least 250,000 people across the country and driven 11
million from their homes.
After around a week of heavy Russian air strikes, Syrian government
troops and their allies broke through rebel defenses to reach two
Shi'ite towns in northern Aleppo province on Wednesday, choking
opposition supply lines from Turkey.
The Syrian army's success in opening a route to the Shi'ite towns of
Nubul and Zahraa enabled it to cut a main highway that linked rebel
held areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo with the eastern
part of Aleppo held by insurgents since 2012.
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The latest gains by the Syrian government brings it to the closest
point to the Turkish border area since August 2013, the Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights said.
The capture of the towns of Mayer and then Kafin, just north of
Nubul and Zahraa, in the past 24 hrs have opened the road toward Tal
Rifaat, the next focus of the army assault. The capture of that
would leave only the town of Azaz before the Turkish border itself.
The prospect of the loss of Azaz, just a few miles from the Bab al
Salama border crossing, would virtually wipe out the insurgents from
their main stronghold in northwest Syria.
Russian bombing has for weeks targeted rebel routes to the main
border crossing that was once a major gateway from Europe and Turkey
to the Gulf and Iraq.
Since it fell to insurgents, the crossing has been both a major
commercial lifeline and arms supply route for rebel-held areas in
Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
The army's advance has also been indirectly helped by Kurdish-led
YPG militias who control the city of Afrin, south west of Azaz. They
have seized a string of villages including Ziyara and Khreiybeh in
the last few days, rebels said.
The Observatory also said they had secured the villages of Deir
Jamal and Maranaz from Islamist insurgents.
Four months of Russian air strikes have tipped the momentum of the
war Assad's way. With Moscow's help and allies including Lebanon's
Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, the Syrian army is regaining areas
on key fronts in the west.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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